Peter Greenwell - Noël's last Accompanist
Philip Hoare has kindly provided this obituary of Peter Greenwell, Noël's last accompanist and a noted composer in his own right. It was published in The Independent on 20th June.
Peter Ashley Greenwell, composer and pianist: born Hampton-in-Arden, Warwickshire 12 August 1929; died Denia, Spain 4 June 2006.
The pianist and performer Peter Greenwell was a deliciously entertaining interpreter of Noel Coward's songs, particularly adept at squeezing every wry innuendo out of the Master's comic work. But then, he had a good tutor: Coward himself. They met in 1962, and worked together on recordings and in concerts until Coward's death in 1973. Greenwell's pet story was to recount how he'd done his homework before meeting the Master, discovering his preferred key was E flat. When Coward suggested they 'have a go' at one of his songs, Greenwell rather archly asked, 'In E flat?' To which
Coward retorted, 'I knew we would be lovers'.
That was by no means certain; but Greenwell did impress: Alan Jay Lerner called him 'the best Noel Coward since Noel Coward'.
He began his theatre career as an actor in the 1940s, touring in Ireland with a company formed by Geoffrey and Laura Kendal - with Greenwell supplying incidental music, too. He continued to work as a performer, but also began writing his own material, culminating in 1959 with a musical, The Crooked Mile, co-written with Peter Wildeblood, whose part in the
infamous Montagu Case had resulted in an 18 month prison sentence, and, later, his moving account of the affair, Against the Law.
A little of that reality brushed off on their musical, a gangland story set in Soho (not unlike Coward's earlier effort, Ace of Clubs). The Crooked Mile ran for 164 performances at the Cambridge Theatre, and made a star of Millicent Martin. Greenwell recalled that it received 'universally good notices', and was especially praised by The Times. In 2003, the cast album was revived on CD, with the song, 'If I ever fall in love' recorded by Sarah Brightman and Elisabeth Welch.
Greenwell enjoyed working with Wildeblood. 'Peter and I got on terribly well – I remember it as one of the happiest times of my life', he told me. They worked together again on House of Cards - less favourably received, although Greenwell claimed that it was 'one of Andrew Lloyd-Webber's favourite musicals'. A third effort, The People's Jack, based on the life of John Wilkes, appeared in 1969, and was televised (as Wildeblood had recently joined Granada as a TV producer). A series, Rogue's Gallery, appeared in 1968, with Greenwell writing the music; earlier, in 1966, he had written the music for Six Shades of Black, six black comedies. Greenwell told me that in 1993, Wildeblood had written suggesting they collaborate on another musical. 'I've been waiting years for you to say that', said Greenwell. 'I really think his facility for lyric writing was second only to Noel Coward'.
But it was his meeting with the Master in 1962 which changed the course of his life. 'This was a time when I was often at the piano in the Players' Theatre', he said. 'People would come in after a show, and one day Graham Payn [Coward's partner] came up to me and said: "Noel has to do a gala for the Gallery First Nighters. I don't know whether you'd like to help him at all?".'
Thereafter, when Coward came to London to perform (he was now living as a tax exile in Switzerland and Jamaica), Greenwell would be summoned to the Savoy. 'He'd have a light meal little sandwiches, a glass of champagne then we'd get into the car and go off and do it. If he was pleased with the way they'd received him, he would stay for a little while and chat. Then he'd say, "Coming back for a nightcap?" and off we'd toddle back to his suite at the Savoy, and we'd have some more champagne or gin and tonic, and have a little talk about the evening.'
Greenwell continued to compose, even though he left London to live in Spain. He received an Oscar nomination for his music for Ken Russell's film of The Boy Friend in 1971, and his musical of The Mitford Girls was a success in 1981, but latterly, he devoted himself to cabaret-style performances. In 1995, he played at Chichester in David Kernan's Noel
Coward/Cole Porter entertainment, Let's Do It, and the following year opened his one-man show, A Talent to Amuse, a tribute to Coward, at the Vaudeville Theatre.
'He's all plump where Coward was all nerves', noted the Mail on Sunday. 'But Greenwell grows on you. His voice is nicely metallic, not parotting but echoing in what Coward called "the quite tolerably suggestive" songs'. Jack Tinker added, 'From the unflinchingly patriotic "London Pride" to the more erotic gallery of grotesques such as "Uncle Harry" and 'Mrs Worthington', then on to the sublime lyrical nostalgia of 'Sail Away' or "The Party's Over Now", he takes us on an impeccably presented conducted tour of pure pleasure.'
With his Iberian perma-tan and his twinkling eyes, Greenwell resembled one's naughty uncle. In 1999, he played at the inaugural Noel Coward Conference at the University of Birmingam, singing a hilarious 1930s addition to 'Mad About the Boy', in which the lovelorn singer became a businessman besotted by said boy. Greenwell sang such lines as 'People I employ / Have the impertinence to call me Myrna Loy', with monstrously wicked timing - inserting a lovely beat between 'call me' and 'Myrna Loy' - and with an equally monstrously wicked wink. 'And as for his manner, my dears, and his improbable stories about Ivor and Binkie and Bea,' as the Sunday Telegraph had concluded of an earlier performance, 'they preserve the very spirit of a vanished era. When the time comes he ought to donate himself to the Theatre Museum.'